By Katrina Boone
Students need so much. When I became a teacher, I felt energized by that challenge. Two years later, I felt hopeless.
The top-down administration at my school was ineffective. Teachers had little authority or time to implement the ideas they believed would meet some of those needs, solutions that could have been scaled school-wide to improve student learning. It was practically impossible for me to be the teacher I wanted to be. I left teaching and moved to a different country.
In time, I found my way back and teacher leadership has sustained me, renewed my hope in what this career can be. As part of our work, my colleague Brandy Beasley and I met with students who aspired to become teachers at Kentucky State University. We planned to discuss teacher leadership, share some of the ways in which teacher leaders might be helpful to them in the first few years of their career, and encourage them to begin imagining how they might build their own teacher leadership futures.
The students we met were incredibly diverse – men and women; Latino, black and white; students who hoped to teach elementary school, middle grades and high school. Our conversations revealed that many of them had attended and hoped to work in the types of schools that serve large populations of poor and minority students – the sorts of teachers Kentucky needs most.
We started our discussion by asking the students why they wanted to teach. Two young black men – who aspire to be music teachers – spoke passionately about their belief that music, as a universal language, has the power to foster all types of student learning, especially for young kids who are behind in reading and math. Another young woman – who exuded one of the most commanding personalities in the group – shared that as a Latina student in a mostly white elementary school, she had felt invisible as a child. She had always respected and admired her teachers, but they rarely acknowledged her. She wants to be the kind of teacher she never had. She wants to see every child.
We spent the rest of our time exploring the Kentucky Teacher Leadership Framework. In that hour or so, the students grew increasingly enthusiastic. They hadn’t heard of teacher leadership before. They hadn’t imagined leading from their classrooms, coaching their peers or leading a team of teachers.
Brandy and I fielded a lot of questions about the framework and about teacher leadership in general. But more than anything, the students wanted to learn more about hybrid roles for teachers. “What is a hybrid teacher?” “How does that work in elementary school?” “Do you like it?” “How does it benefit students?”
As Brandy and I serve in hybrid roles, we had a few thoughts on the subject.
The power of this sort of role lies in the way in which it extends the careers and reach of great teachers. A hybrid role affirms a teacher’s expertise and formalizes opportunities for other educators and students to benefit from it. Hybrid teachers may technically be responsible for fewer students, but through modeling and coaching, they can improve learning for far more students than they could have in traditional roles. Hybrid teachers may be available less often in school buildings, but in their release time they may be able to forge relationships with local business and community members that redefine where school “happens.”
Our discussion of hybrid roles and teacher leadership helped the students to see that they had spent a long time considering who they might be as teachers, but not who they might be as leaders. Their intrinsic motivations for teaching were full of opportunities for leadership, but they hadn’t realized that before.
The Kentucky leadership framework affirmed the sort of teachers the students at Kentucky State University hoped to become. It showed them the type of support they might receive from teacher leaders when they began teaching. It helped them imagine formal ways in which they might lead from their classrooms. I left that evening feeling more excited about my career than I had in a long time.
But I also felt a bit uneasy. As much as I wished I could promise the students I met at KSU that those roles will exist in the future, I couldn’t. Too few schools and districts are prepared to commit to teacher leadership as a viable solution to the challenges they and their students face.
The students that night reminded me so much of who I was when I began my career – passionate, idealistic and completely unaware of the obstacles I would have to surmount if I hoped to meet the needs of my students. Some of them will face an employment situation that will leave them feeling as hopeless and frustrated as I did after my first few years of teaching. Some of them will leave unfulfilling teaching positions for schools and districts that elevate teachers as experts and leaders. Some of them will leave teaching altogether.
Students need teachers who have the time and resources to work together and craft engaging, rigorous lessons. They need teachers who have the time and resources to pass their expertise along to their colleagues through modeling and coaching. They need teachers who have the time and resources to expand the life of the classroom beyond a building and into the community. Students need teachers who have opportunities to lead without leaving them.
Our students need so much, and Kentucky’s teachers have the expertise and skill to help them. It’s time to trust that teachers can address the challenges that motivated them to become teachers in the first place. If district and school leaders truly hope to meet the needs of students, they must reimagine teaching roles, expanding them to include opportunities to teach, collaborate AND lead.
Katrina Boone works as a teacher leader on special assignment with the Kentucky Department of Education. In the mornings, she teaches junior English classes at Shelby County High School (Shelbyville), and in the afternoons, she does work to support teacher leadership and educator voice around the state. She is the founder of engagEDKY, an initiative that aims to engage Kentucky’s teachers in public conversations and provide them resources to heighten the impact of their ideas.